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November 26, 2013

Artistic visions

Exhibit features tactile portraits by blind and visually impaired students

Too often people think of portraits as inherently visual. An upcoming exhibit featuring work by students from the Kentucky School of the Blind is challenging that assumption and showcasing just how expressive, creative and — yes — visually appealing art by the visually impaired can be.

The exhibit is the result of a long-standing partnership between the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and the Kentucky School for the Blind. For years, an artist-in-residence at the former has assisted in art classes and activities for the latter, which has a humanities teacher but no dedicated art teacher. This year’s resident, Liz Richter, led middle- and high-school students in repurposing fabric, old brooms and mops, bolts, wood scraps, yarn and other found objects into recognizable portraits.

Reliance on non-visual characteristics like texture and shape led students to objects that people with sight might not have considered. The result is a rich collection of pieces — some are self-portraits, others are loved ones or imagined characters complete with back stories.

“I was so intimidated going in because I had no experience working with kids with special needs,” admits Richter. “Beforehand, the principal told me that every resident winds up learning more than the kids do — that’s true.”

For Richter, one of the most surprising things was that colors still mattered. Specific colors come with non-visual associations, which students understand and connect with, regardless of whether or not they can grasp the concept of colors on a larger scale. For instance, a University of Kentucky fanatic who’s been blind since birth will still love the color blue, thanks to the phrase “Big Blue Nation.” Others will love pink or red or purple because they associate the colors with something personal to them. One student even selected colors for a project based off their names, which she had read to her.

Knowing this can deepen the understanding and appreciation for the collection, which Richter is proud to be moving from the not-so-public hallways of the school to a more accessible venue — a unique gallery space at Good Garbage.

Good Garbage, which opens Saturday, is a new creative reuse center in the Portland neighborhood. The nonprofit business specializes in diverting usable materials away from landfills to teachers, students, crafters and artists. Founded by Lynn Quire, Good Garbage donated many of the odds and ends used by Richter’s students.

Richter and Quire believe the collaboration is a perfect partnership of their respective missions. A grand opening will be held for the unnamed exhibit on Dec. 6, though many of the students won’t be in attendance because they live on campus at the Kentucky School for the Blind. Those students will take a field trip the following week to check out their pieces in action. KSB is the only statewide educational resource center on blindness, serving more than 800 students between the ages of 5 and 21 each year.